“You have an hour, Brigadier. After that I’m taking off – with or without you. Those were my orders.” If the pilot thinks the situation is strange, he’s not showing it. He’s landed next to the white church in Caramuti – where the bullet marks still told a story of their own – without being detected by radar, and that was all that counted. Whatever this Brigadier’s mission in town is, is not his business. He watches as the man hesitantly gets off the helicopter, almost as if he’s unsure of what he can expect.
Agents! The pilot shrugs. These spooks are a weird bunch….
The villagers have waited for the rotors to stop and the dust to settle before emerging from their houses. Curious faces stared at the brigadier, who stared back in forlorn hope.
Time ceased to be. In that moment he was transported back to Pretoria station, a rookie, waiting for orders. Sergeant-major Grove shouted at him. The corporal glared at him. The barracks needed to be cleaned. His boots were dirty, his rifle unattended. Yet, despite this, he stood rooted to the spot. The second-hand on the great cosmic clock of life refused to move one tick, one tock, ahead. Time, as he knew it, ceased to exist.
The villagers seemed frozen in mid-step; the treacherous dog of yesteryear (or its offspring) ready to scratch at an ear, the hind leg suspended in time. There was the headman, older, stooped, but unmistakably the same; and a younger man, golden chain around his neck. And villagers, many villagers, stood there, motionless, while the second refused to die to give the future a chance to unfold. The dust raised by their rushing feet – now unmoving, motionless – hung in the air in anticipation.
Like an arena-crowd all stampeding to a single exit, the memories of his time spent with Alycia rushed forwards to be recognised; crushing, pushing, shoving at each other until they form a single conglomerate: the desire to be with her.
And there – there! – bent over a pile of wood, ready to carry it to the fire, was the body, the figure, the image of a thousand drawings, poised to add wood to the fire under a large pot.
“Al-y-cia…” He can’t manage more than a whisper as fear compresses his heart and his breath stopps.
Back at Ngepi, the little crowd tries not to take note of the time.
“They must be there, already. I wonder…”
“What will be, will be, Precilla. We’ve done what we can, and now it’s up to them. We gave him a chance to live. We can only wait… Have another gin: I always say it’s the best way to fight impatience.”
“I do so hope, Gertruida…”
“I know. But this is real life, remember. The brigadier will close a book today: either he’ll find her and be happy, or he won’t and get closure. Both ways he wins. Love stories don’t have to have roses and violins when the credits roll – in fact, the best love stories are those that never happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, Precilla, you’re so young…” Gertruida sits down next to her friend with a weary smile. “Love stories end, my dear. All of them. The poets write about everlasting love, songs have stupid lyrics about love never dying, and Hollywood makes a fortune with sentimental movies. It is okay – people need that hope, that belief. It keeps us going.
“But…Life happens. People die. They walk away. They discover cracks in the walls of their worlds. And one day…one day…the one is left without the other. It’s inevitable. So my reasoning is: Love will lead to sadness; joy must lead to pain.
“But oh, that dream of unfulfilled love! The fascination that, for some reason, never developed into a full-scale relationship! It’s like a budding flower with all the promise of beauty, but without the agony of withered petals and winter-browned leaves. Love-that-never-was can be so much sweeter than Love-that-didn’t-survive.”
“I’ll have another gin,” Precilla says angrily as she gets up.
The contours of the body is exactly how he remembers them. The arch of the back. Those dimples above the rump.
Time resumes. The dog barks. People approach. The woman straightens up.
“Soldier Man?” The ageing headman bares his toothless gums in an attempted smile. “Is it you?”
The brigadier nods, his eyes riveted on that body. He feels how his hand is shaken while the hubbub of voices around him increases. Excited voices. Voices with greetings and questions. And a single voice that cuts through the rest, slices through time and distance and space, to make him whirl around, desperately searching the faces in the crowd.
“You back!” It’s an excited shout of joy, relief, surprise. She bursts from the throng to run up to him. “Soldier Man,” she whispers.
Alycia has grown older. The once-firm body of youth now hides beneath the demure long skirt which masks the passage of time. Her face has new angles, a few wrinkles and lines, while the first frost of grey is visible at the sides of her head. But the eyes…the eyes are the same.
The next half-an-hour is totally without form or structure; it;s unadulterated chaos. They all want to ask questions, everybody wants an answer. Alycia holds up a hand, to silence them all and leads the brigadier to a hut.
“We need talk,” she says.
They watch the helicopter swoop down, cross the river, and approach the green lawn.
“Is the brigadier on board?” Precilla shields her eyes from the sun as she tries to see if the pilot has a passenger.
“The brigadier?” Gertruida lifts her glass. “The brigadier is dead, Precilla. The war killed him.”
Servaas nods. “If he comes back, he’ll be a new man. If he stays, he’ll be a new man. Both ways, the brigadier is no more.”
They watch as the pilot alights. Precilla stands, hand on her heart, happy tears running down her cheeks.
“Then we’ll hold a party to celebrate. A wake for the brigadier! Yes, we’ll celebrate a war that was fought with honour, a victory so long overdue.”
And that’s what they did. They held a wake.
Consensus in Rolbos is that it was the happiest Wake…ever.
In a small village in Southern Angola, an attractive middle-aged woman calls the young woman over – the same one the brigadier thought he recognised when they landed. She’s been hovering nearby, uncertain if it is appropriate to approach the couple in the shade in front of the hut – afraid that her hope would be in vain..
“Alli, come here. Come and meet your papa.”
There is a balance in Life. Love and Sorrow, Loss and Gain, Life and Death all end up on the scale to be weighed, judged, and handed out to individuals. Some call it Karma, others prefer Destiny or Fate. Sometimes Good will prevail over Evil. However, saying ‘Goodbye’ is as much part of living as “Hello” is. And yet, as sad as the word may make us feel, a wake is not just greeting a departed friend or saying goodbye to loved one – it is also always the start of something new.
And that’s why, when they held the wake in that bar next to the Okavango, there was a remarkable absence of tears when they celebrated the death of a brigadier and welcomed the return to life of a man who gave his life for a cause – and found love in the most unlikely of places: in his own heart.
“But a wake is for the dead?” Precilla wonders.
“No. It’s for the life afterwards,” Gertruida answers.
Epilogue to follow…